You’ve heard the rumor, right?
I feel like the twee sensibilities of writer/director Wes Anderson might be catching up to him. Moonrise Kingdom was a sort of rejuvenation proving both exactly like his oeuvre and wholly unique as its child’s perspective lent a fresh voice to his usual brand of artificial melodrama. But rather than propel him forward, it seems it may have pulled him back. The auteur’s follow-up was the hilarious The Grand Budapest—perhaps his funniest tale to-date despite ringing hollow in a way that turned endearing artifice into surface distraction doing little more than hiding the absence of true emotional impact. It was a disappointing result, but one I hoped would prove an aberration after venturing back into stop-motion territory. Sadly, however, Isle of Dogs is no Fantastic Mr. Fox.
That’s not to say Isle of Dogs is bad. Neither is Budapest. The reality is less about their quality and more about their failure to make-good on the promise of Anderson’s past art. It’s easy to dismiss his work as redundant and superficial, but behind the aesthetic was always a show of humanity that exposed growth of character, the possibility for forgiveness, and a sliver of attrition courtesy of his revolving door of self-centered brats lambasted and honored in equal measure. This is what’s now missing. His premise, structure, and comedy have evolved to great creative heights and yet they all arrive without that heart. We laugh at circumstances, character dynamics, and carefully composed dialogue built with a rhythm to earn our delight. But delight doesn’t equal resonance.
As a result, I never cared about Atari (Koyu Rankin) or his lost dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). This idea of a boy so distraught over his best friend being taken away that he’d mount a rescue attempt wasn’t fully realized beyond its purpose within the larger plot of mass canine genocide by a feline-loving Japanese dynasty led by Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) twenty years into the future. Anderson and co-writers Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Nomura have crafted a sprawling tale with multiple vantage points, numerous flashbacks, and a litany of characters to facilitate the director’s usual suspects in voice acting roles. It’s been said that Akira Kurosawa was a big influence, but I’m not sure it’s evident beyond narrative machinations more outward appropriation than legitimate homage.
I don’t say that to add my voice to those pointing out cultural appropriation, though. I’m in no position to weigh in on the subject considering I’m neither Japanese nor versed in their customs or history. The most I can say is that Anderson’s use of Japan seems to stem from honoring Kurosawa rather than profiting off the aesthetic. His main impetus for using a foreign country at all is honestly just to assist the comedic format he’s decided to utilize, one wherein a language barrier becomes key to the visual dissemination of information and humorous exchanges reliant upon translation or the lack thereof. Japan presents a notion of dynastic rule alongside the convenience of an island setting. I’ll assume Nomura kept them honest as far as representation.
I won’t deny the ingenuity of this choice to use an international environment because it is ingenious for Anderson’s cutely straight-played, tongue-in-cheek tone to let the dogs speak English while also providing a realistic means for interpretation to those human characters unable to do the same. Whenever a Japanese role like Kobayashi or his science-party opposition (Akira Ito‘s Professor Watanabe) needs to be deciphered (we’re often only left with their expressive attitude to discern what’s being said), their words get filtered through the media so Frances McDormand‘s Interpreter Nelson can translate. Atari is left to his own devices as a boy surrounded by dogs he can’t understand either and all other relevant Japanese players are generally in contact with Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an exchange student from Ohio.
It’s this elaborate technical set-up of logistical insanity that allows Isle of Dogs to survive beyond its emotional shortcomings. The script is brisk, funny, and inventive in its back and forth progression, aural and visual callbacks, and sheer absurd audacity. We’re talking about a landfill imprisoning diseased dogs that were discarded by a fear-mongering mayoral monarch hell-bent on eradicating the animal his family has hated for millennia after all. This political adversity between anti-dog totalitarians and pro-dog humanitarians championing a cure to reintroduce a status quo that never should have been abolished underlines the entire plot. It is why the canines left to help Atari’s quest (Bryan Cranston‘s Chief, Edward Norton‘s Rex, Bob Balaban‘s King, Bill Murray‘s Boss, and Jeff Goldblum‘s Duke) are the eccentric ways they are.
Again: they’re absolutely delightful. Their insecurities, character ticks, and motivations are spot-on both for the actors voicing them and the priceless satirical depiction of dogs as we know them. Large-scale white clouds of limbs and teeth are to this story what “cussing” was to Fantastic Mr. Fox, that chaotic violence versus sanitized gimmick a good signifier that this one deals a bit more authentically with evil, death, and animal experimentation. Don’t blindly decide to leave the kids at home, though. Just plan accordingly as it’s PG-13 compared to Fox‘s PG. And while many of the complexities will probably fly over their heads, they should tickle you. So too will the production value with impeccable animation and expert cinematography unafraid to pan or zoom for additional laughs.
But those are technical successes providing visual gags and charm. Watching Atari slowly inch up an amusement park ride’s ladder while Chief threatens to carry out their plan alone is objectively funny, but adds little to the whole. No revelation is truly surprising—neither the disease’s origins nor Chief’s history. If anything the latter doesn’t go far enough. Add the fact that female characters are included to fawn (Tracy’s headstrong activism is undermined by her out-of-nowhere declaration of love played for a lazy laugh) or become fodder for “bitch in heat” quips and it’s easy to say the filmmakers didn’t care how problematic their characters were as long as they served their elaborate, over-arching narrative. Unfortunately that narrative never transcends its admirable logistics to forgive those lapses.
 (From L-R): Bryan Cranston as “Chief,” Bob Balaban as “King,” Koyu Rankin as “Atari Kobayashi,” Bill Murray as “Boss,” Edward Norton as “Rex” and Jeff Goldblum as “Duke” in the film ISLE OF DOGS. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Koyu Rankin as “Atari Kobayashi” in the film ISLE OF DOGS. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Edward Norton as “Rex” in the film ISLE OF DOGS. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Greta Gerwig as “Tracy Walker” in the film ISLE OF DOGS. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved